A big recreational activity in South Korea is a visit to the bath house. The culture surrounding spas and public bath houses in Korea differs greatly from that of the United States. Back home, such places usually conjure perverse and bizarre ideas and images. Here in Korea though, the baths are as common a place to go and hang out as a pool or tennis club are. While they are obviously single sex, father’s bring their sons and cousins and everyone has a good time with it. One of my students at school even used a spa trip as the primary subject of his weekend journal entry.
Friday, I took my first trip to the baths, meeting two teachers from school at Heosimcheong Spa (supposedly the largest hot spring fed spa in all of Asia) to see what these crazy Koreans do while getting clean in public. By the way, there’s little going on in the way of pictures in this post, for pretty obvious reasons.
Without a doubt, the most striking cultural difference in locker room behavior compared to what I am used to back home is the comfort Korean males have in just walking around naked.
In general, the American male is very bashful (some say homophobic) about his nudity in public changing and showering areas. I remember the half term my gym classes would spend on swimming in high school and how awkward the locker room was; boys doing everything they can to avoid seeing anyone else naked or revealing their private bits to anyone. Guys would manauever underwear on and off from beneath a towel, looking straight up at the ceiling just to avoid and reveals.
I already had some familiarity with Korean males comfort with their selves from the locker room at the gym I work out at, but Heosimcheong brought it to a new level. Once I paid my admission and got into the changing room, I saw guys just walking around sans clothes as though wearing shirts and pants was abnormal. I couldn’t get beyond snickering a little bit once I too was naked as the whole thing felt just a bit strange.
Once I got topside to the baths and met up with my teacher friends (its very easy to find the only two other naked white guys at even the largest Spa in Asia), I began to gain some comfort with sauntering around naked. I opened my baths session up with a brief rubdown and an exfoliation session.
The Korean guy working the massage tables new what he was doing and had some strong hands doing it with. As he went to work and got some of the kinks out of my back, I starting feeling pretty good, especially at the end of the week. Also, and this was after he was done with the minimassage and scrub, I realized that this guy could probably snap my femur in two based on the strength he exhibited.
Anyway, after the rub, I was feeling great and walking around the baths as though I live life naked. I gave a bunch of the baths a dip, enjoying the cherry bath, the mud bath and the large warm bath with adjoining minigrotto with a blinking light for effect. The cherry bath was particularly memorable as fresh cherry-red tinged water was introduced to the bath from the mouth of a large Korean statue’s mouth. That would have been to capture on film, but again, its a bathhouse.
While generally most of the baths are comfortable, the bathhouse also introduces environments that are do not feel pleasant and become tests of willpower and endurance. One such station was the 50 degrees C (about 120 F) wet sauna, in which I labored to breath and lasted perhaps three minutes, one of the longest three minutes in my life. There was an outdoor “polar bear” bath, but I only had the determination to try the cold bath. The cold bath is awfully uncomfortable for about the first few minutes, then it begins to feel cleansing. The physical test to these baths and saunas are clear, but the mental effect is pretty palpable. The cold bath offerred a great mental cleaning, as I was not able to think about anything apart from “This water is very cold.” while in the tub.
After finishing up, I observed a few more things about cultural differences in the lockerroom; I am much bigger than just about all the Korean guys I’ve seen so far and they do stare at you (some in a discomforting manner) in the lockerroom. Also, their lockerroom is really clean.
Overall, a phenomenal experience and one that I definitely intend on repeating.